The power we hold in our hands

Or... what I learned from the demise of my mobile phone. A cautionary tale.

The last 10 days have been interesting.  As some of you know my phone decided to ascend to mobile heaven last week – just after my community welcome event. I woke up to see a black screen with no option of a safe mode restart or even the dreaded factory reset.

While I was thankful my phone hadn’t died before the community event, I felt strangely unsettled by its demise but I recognised in that moment, the Universe was probably telling me it was time to retreat, to travel inward once more and take my foot off the gas for a bit. I had spent so much of my time and energy ‘out there’ getting things done, talking to people, being super organised, being super busy, busy being busy as all workaholic perfectionists are prone to do.  We all know this is a recipe for illness or burn-out – so I took the cue from the demise of my phone. It was time to disconnect and have some quiet recalibration time

After a couple of days, I realised there may be clients or family feeling slighted by their unanswered texts, so I duly sent an email and Facebook message along the lines of “If you’ve messaged me I’m not ignoring you …” Everyone said similar things about taking the opportunity to enjoy a phone detox and yes it’s true we all spend far too much time glued to our phones. However, as I thought about what a phone detox would mean, I thought (rather naively I might add), well, I’m not one to scroll on my phoneI mean, I’m not one of those whose life revolves around their phone so this shouldn’t be too hard… This led me to wonder about my mobile phone’s role in my life. If I’m so sure I’m not ruled by it, why am I feeling this odd anxiety about not having one?

Like many of you (particularly women I suspect) I realised I use my phone as a safety net or some sort of electronic comfort blanket. I have no sense of direction, so my phone is generally used to make sure I get where I’m going without any dramas (I have a back-catalogue of “that time I missed the exit” stories if you’re interested?).  I carry my phone around so I can be instantly connected to Toni, Mr P, or family who might urgently need to get a hold of me, and there is comfort in knowing I can call on Mr P in moments of need. In fact I can think of a specific time many years ago when Mr P rescued me from a ‘night gone wrong’. I dread to think how that particular night may have ended if I had been unable to call him. I’m sure many of you can relate to the sense of physical safety a phone can bring, but I digress.

Beyond the safety element, the death of my phone taught me something about myself that I hadn’t realised and yet, simultaneously, served as a wake-up call.

I can’t tell you the amount of times I have gone to reach for my phone over the last week to take a photo of something that inspired me creatively, or to capture something that just looked beautiful in the evening light. I reflect on the images later to help my writing process – or to inspire my next chalk paint project, or to share something of my life with family and friends on the other side of the world. Most of the time I like to share them– because these photos connect us all in some way. I use my phone to take photos – endless photos.

But it’s not just been the wonderful moments I’ve captured with this phone – I also took photos in the midst of deep pain. As some of you who know us will remember, not long ago, we lost a dear precious soul from our lives. Eric was engaged to my daughter at the time of his passing. It was on this phone I received that call from her. It was also on that phone I sent messages to those in our family that knew him. It was on that phone I had some of the most painful conversations I’ve ever tried to navigate. This phone held messages and photos from Eric. It was on that phone I did a very strange thing. I took photos ‘of that moment in time’. 

I didn’t sleep that first night – I paced and listened at my daughter’s door. Mr P had dropped me at the hotel where Eric and Miss T had been staying and he returned home. After all, we were connected by the phone if we needed anything. At 5 am I was still unable to sleep and I thought writing might help. I normally write my way through the unfathomable – but on this night I just couldn’t write anything too meaningful. Jumbled words – half thoughts perhaps, but my mind was an incoherent mangle of pain for my daughter, for Eric’s mum and dad – for everyone. The only thing I could think to do to regulate myself was to “breathe” and to take photos (I know, even now this seems strange to me). It wasn’t a conscious decision – it was driven out of necessity somehow. If I couldn’t write the words, I had to find some way to express or document this unbearable void. As a mother I connected with Eric’s mum’s pain – as a mother, I wanted to carry my daughter’s pain. But I couldn’t. Something pushed me to capture something of the energy – perhaps to return to later when it was possible to sit in sacred silence with the trauma that had changed everyone’s life so irrevocably. Those photos will forever hold an imprint – an energetic time capsule. I took photos of the “ordinary” items where they had been placed without a care in a world where Eric and Toni’s life was all that was good and happy. I took photos of the dawn and the gritty street below the hotel window, I took photos of the concrete walls of the inner city hotel room. I never want to visit these photos (or jumbled words) again, but they are there if needed for healing.

In some strange way, yes perhaps I thought it might help at a later date, but it was deeper than that. It was about connecting with or silently expressing an inner, smothering pain, that could not be described on paper or uttered in words. By attaching an ‘energetic cord’ to this moment in time – I was attaching the inner world to something external and physical in a photograph.

We all know the benefits of art therapy, but by extension, photography is extremely useful when it comes to grief therapy. It feels almost primal to capture images, textures, lighting, colour, mood and everyday objects to articulate a range of emotions that words can’t convey.

It’s that ancient indigenous hand reaching out to us from the cave wall – we instantly want to place our hand on that outline. We want to connect through the images left to us from another time.

It may seem unrelated to be thinking about memories of loss when musing about my relationship with my phone – but this is when a cold realisation gripped me. It was the potential transience of everything that I had ever attached great weight, emotion and meaning to (from recent years). Everything was stored on my phone and I had no ownership of where these memories and moments were kept once my phone no longer existed.

Without me realising it, my phone had become an integral part of my life, and a record keeper of long cherished happy or painful memories. My mum’s mobile number, my grandad’s messages, messages from my friend Bernie – all people who were no longer physically in my life. These photos and messages only existed within the confines of technology – within the realms of some intangible ‘cloud’. My phone held photos of my various moves, my adventures and the animals and people I have cared for. Yes, these events are cherished in my mind, but they are not written down or documented for anyone else to connect with in future generations.

I’ve been without my phone for ten days now. It’s been quite the realisation to discover I use my phone for so many “emotional” aspects of my life – as well as being a ‘primary source” or record keeper.

On the positive side, I’ve realised I’m not only a writer but perhaps there’s a bit of photographer in me too. I’ve never considered myself a photographer before – so perhaps this is a new story to begin weaving through my life story … and yes, what a wonderful thing to have uncovered about myself through this exercise.

However, I didn’t realise quite how much of my everyday, ordinary actions were tied up with my phone from banking, to medical appointments to access to Chromecast and God knows what else. Increasingly as a society we are being pushed into using our phones for ‘everything’ aren’t we? As one of my friends said – you carry your identity on your phone these days. If things go wrong, using a service on an App though, there is rarely a human being there to assist us – it’s a chatbot. There’s no accountability, there’s no resolution and there’s no human connection – and yet – somehow I have been using my phone to create connection on one hand, while giving away some of my most sensitive information on the other. It led me to question who holds the power here.

Maybe this is the rub – the toxic relationship we have to detox from. When everything’s good it’s brilliant – but when it’s bad – it can have disastrous consequences. It’s hard to leave someone or something that’s convenient or keeps you there with memories of the good things about them. We can look at messages from our parents who are no longer with us, or see phone numbers of those we loved but have long since left our lives …It’s emotional manipulation in many regards. We have a basic need as human beings to be connected to our tribe – largely due to our primal need for safety. Are these the breadcrumbs we are being lured by, as we hand over control and storage of our ‘emotional’ and aspirational selves – as we hand over our identity and our most sacred snapshots of time?

How have you felt when you have lost your phone or your phone has died? Did you discover something deeper about yourself that you hadn’t considered before? Maybe you suddenly realised how much of your physical life is tied up in your phone  – but did you ever consider the emotional connection we are developing with these electronic devices? I wonder if there is a more balanced approach to living with technology. It looks like mobiles are here to stay … but the longer they stay – the more they will control our lives – literally.

It’s been an interesting time as I say. Today as I unwrap my new phone, I am pondering on my ‘new relationship’ – perhaps we’ll start things off on a different footing.

I’ll still take my photos to inspire or record for posterity but I’ll commit to learning photography to get the best out of my camera.  I’ll consider which apps need to be on my new phone and those I can do without. And perhaps I should go back to just reading maps and road signs to find my way around, instead of allowing my anxiety levels to be dictated by how much battery my phone has left… (on second thoughts, let’s not be too hasty…)

So yes – a phone detox has done me a ‘power of good’ after all. It was good to discover something about myself in the process, but it’s a timely reminder we may need to re-evaluate our emotional relationship with this little ‘device’. Storing so much of our lives on this little rectangle to the extent we have an emotional connection with it, while blindly handing over our identity and control of who we are to “something unseen” seems like a mass waving of red flags in a toxic relationship to me – and I’ve seen a few of those in my time! And ignored them too!

I’ve unwrapped my phone now. She is a beautiful silvery sky blue – oh and she’s got some great new features … and oh damn it … ‘how could I stay mad at you?’  

It feels good to be back … for now.

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